Thursday, 29 November 2012

La Règle de Jeu (Jean Renoir, 1939)

“You forget she belongs to society; the rules are strict”


The only film that has featured consistently in the Top 10 of the Sight & Sound poll since 1952 is La Règle de Jeu. Translated as The Rules of the Game, this film has an air of authority. Personally, the film could be seen as a perfunctory inclusion in the poll – critics assuming a Top 10 simply wouldn’t be complete without Renoir. Against that, the film explores an interesting social-context and holds a controversial edge as it pre-dated World War II, highlighting the attitudes prevalent in France in 1939. Considering how much I adore the socio-economic themes in The Dark Knight trilogy – and thoroughly enjoy researching the time-period a film is released within, this is a film I am happy to get my teeth into. Prior to production of the film, Jean Renoir himself described the film as “An exact description of the bourgeoisie of our time”. Just what I like – and hate – in equal measure.

Upstairs and Downstairs

Adapted loosely from Alfred de Musset’s ‘Les Caprices de Marianne’, La Règle de Jeu begins as pilot André Jurieux (Roland Toutain) completes an epic flight – which, upon finishing, realises that the woman he loves, Christine (Nora Gregor … reminding me of Kristin Scott Thomas), is not waiting to greet him. The story soon turns into a social gathering, whereby we are introduced to a broad range of characters, with a small group of interlinking stories that cross boundaries of class and social etiquette. Philip Kemp summarises it perfectly in the liner notes for the release:
“André Jurieux… loves Christine, wife of the Marquis de la Chesnaye (Marcel Dalio). La Chesnaye, for his part, is having a covert affair with socialite Geneviève (Mila Parély). Chesnaye’s gamekeeper, Schumacher (Gaston Modot), is violently jealous of his wife Lisette (Paulette Dubost), Christine’s maid, whom he suspects is dallying with poacher-turned valet Marceau (Julien Carette)”

Interestingly, Renoir himself portrays one character in Octave, a friend of all, who seems to always be the one man attempting to balance and bring order to the complex lives of the various characters – but deep down holds his own candle for Christine. This is a film that stylistically has influenced films including Gosford Park and, despite my own disinterest in the series, Tim Robey writes that it could even be described as “Downton Abbey for film snobs”. But it is this fascinating social-order which, on the one hand remains interesting as a context, but on the other connects to the politics of the time and arguably, the elitism of the upper-class today.

Standing in a doorway

Technically, the film is marvellous. As a private drama, the camera lingers often in the scene – it roams around, almost following someone. If regularly lurks in the doorways and hallways as if we are personally at the gathering leaning on the door-frame, viewing the event. In one marvellous sequence we join the group on a hunt, whereby rabbits and pheasants are shot. Initially, Octave discusses with Jurieux his increasing frustration with Christine – before we view animals at peace, centre frame, enjoying the woodland. As expected, sticks are beaten; horns are blown; the upper-class waits with their rifles. Initially camera-shots are calm and peaceful, but soon the editing picks up in pace. We cut from running rabbits, the camera frantically trying to capture their movement; cut-to a man shooting his rifle, and another man shooting his own gun; cut-to a rabbit’s death and a pheasant flapping helplessly before being mercilessly killed. One rabbit wreaths in pain after the camera has tracked him, before suddenly grinding to a halt and lingering on the death of this poor animal. Seconds later the group talk and laugh about the death of a hunter whose gun exploded on his thigh. So flippant is the idea of death.
“Everything in it – not just the relationships, but also every character’s presumption of their place in the scheme of things – is wobbling on a precipice.” -Tim Robey

Suffice to say the film ends in tragedy. The one character that has spent the entire film attempting to break past the boundaries of social class is the one character that loses his life in the closing act - Richard Pẽna writes how his sacrifice is to ensure that “a corrupt social order can remain intact”. Barry Norman manages to aptly describe the group – indeed the entire sect of society Renoir depicts as “… a decadent society which is already destroying itself” with a subtext that casts a “critical and mocking eye on the state of France and its destructive class system as world war threatened”. The true tragedy was the events that took place in Europe shortly afterwards.


On the film’s original release it was panned by the French government and a commercial disaster. Prior to its initial release, it was chopped up and reconfigured to an 88-minute run-time – only to be banned completely. It was only in 1956 before reels of footage was found and reconfigured – to become a 113-minute film, revealed at the Venice Film Festival in 1959 – did it become the classic we know today. It’s also worth noting how the first poll in Sight & Sound was conducted in 1952 … so I question the standard of the print viewed by critics who voted for the film, seven years before the viewing in Venice.

But it is clear that this film is hailed by critics due to the multiple layers that Renoir weaves throughout. It captures a specific area of society over a short period of time – and yet it also presents France, as a country, in a way that was so poignant that it became highly controversial. It is a film that subtly manages to present an important, crucial time-period in a manner that realises how flexible film truly is. When a critic strikes parallels in the deep subtext of a film; when a critic believes they can see through the playfulness of a blockbuster to reveal a deeper meaning that highlights the attitude of the film director. This is a film that clearly demonstrates how cinema should aspire to present bigger, profound and epic issues - and the scale of the story is no limitation.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Trouble with the Curve (Robert Lorenz, 2012)

"Anybody who uses computers doesn't know a damn thing about this game"
In the on-going guessing-game of the Academy Awards, it can often be entertaining to look at the trajectory of actors who clearly aim to achieve a statuette. The Trouble with the Curve clearly gained its finance on the basis that it would become an Oscar-nominee. Oscar-favourite Clint Eastwood leading the film supported by Oscar-nominee’s Amy Adams (who has a huge shot of winning one after her role in The Master); supporting-actors from The Artist, The Descendants and The Social Network in John Goodman, Matthew Lillard and Justin Timberlake respectively. Trouble with the Curve should be (and will be) sold as a heart-warming, sport-centric story in the vein of Moneyball and The Blindside (Just compare posters). This should be the film that sits awkwardly amongst the ten Best Picture nominees. It would never win, of course, but enough people will watch it on the basis of the nomination alone to justify the cost. It would then become the core-film in a book titled “D.I.Y Oscar Contender”…
The Story Is...
Unfortunately, Trouble with the Curve will not even get a look-in at the Academy Awards. This is a confused-film that doesn’t seem to truly grasp what is central to the story. It jumps between attempting to prioritise Eastwood’s aging baseball scout as the central narrative, before moving towards Amy Adam’s ‘Mickey’ and her romance with Justin Timberlake. Amongst the character-stories, we are also teased a story regarding an arrogant, sexist teenager shortly before he joins the big-leagues whilst Eastwood’s boss is conflicted about an 80-year-old scout choosing the most important player of the season; especially when computer programs can use statistics to generate details that invalidate the purpose of scouting completely.
Pacing and Tension
Trouble with the Curve seems to be under the impression that you have never seen a film before – and basic knowledge of pacing and set-ups ruin any tension the film attempts to create. Amy Adams and Clint Eastwood arrive at a motel and, fleetingly, two young boys run past to play baseball – only to be told by their Mother, the motel-owner that they need to complete some chores before they can play. It is clear that this is vital to the story and, despite the boys not appearing in the film during the following hour, you know they will return. And they do. And they save the day.
The same frustration sinks in as the film draws to a close and Amy Adams, a lawyer who throughout the film is attached to her mobile phone, stands by a large bin when leaving a baseball stadium. Eastwood re-informs her (as he has throughout the film) about her constant use of a mobile phone… and guess what happens…
The script jarringly attempts to make profound statements about the importance of wisdom and age – as Eastwood can pick-up certain ‘skills’ of players simply by the sound of the baseball hitting the bat. But this is in contrast to his age becoming a serious cause for concern. Eastwood is losing his sight and we see awkward moments as he trips over tables, chairs and steps. I can imagine a group of teenagers will simply see this old-man, stumbling around on screen, as laughable – and as comedic as Clint Eastwood stumbling on stage, in ‘support’ of Mitt Romney at the Republican convention.
Throw into the mix cliché scenes of a rousing “you’re fired!” moment at the end of the film and a romance whereby Justin Timberlake, despite his obvious, immature flirtations still manages to control the dominant Amy Adams and you have a film that doesn’t challenge, inform or engage you. There is a clear right-wing agenda whereby old-age and wisdom is valued higher than innovation and technological-prowess. Amy Adams, an independent-woman who carved out an incredibly successful career at a lawyers firm is “better off” working in baseball, subservient to the “real men” who own the team – and, obviously, she needs sporty-snake Justin Timberlake to come home to.
Starring Clint Eastwood...
And Eastwood? Despite his stuffy attitude to being comfortable (“Being comfortable is overrated!”) he manages, for no clear reason to accept his fate and take a back-seat as his daughter begins to work in the same profession as he did. A hint of nepotism ensures that Eastwood can rest in peace and, inexplicably, we assume this resolves his story (I’d be very interested to see how he actually adapts to this…). Interestingly, this is the directorial-debut of Robert Lorenz – a producer and second-unit director for many Clint Eastwood films. In the same way Amy Adams managed to swoop into the baseball-scouting profession with ease through her Fathers links, I have a feeling Lorenz would’ve had a hard-time finding the support without his own Eastwood connections. Because, like hitting a home-run, this film will disappear into the distance - and it will rest amongst the forgettable made-for-TV and ‘true-story’ films that litter the path of an actor’s career.
Large Association of Movie Blogs

Thursday, 22 November 2012

2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)

"I am putting myself to the fullest possible use, which is all I think that any conscious entity can ever hope to do."
It is argued that 2001: A Space Odyssey is the last Kubrick film to watch. The Shining clearly hints at a form of expression that is abstract in its intentions whilst A Clockwork Orange, though unsettling in its themes, is not incomprehensible. A film deemed frustratingly open-ended, it is also worth noting that 2001, a film that spans an epic scale and attempts to reach further afield than mere entertainment is also in fashion at the moment. Discussion and mainstream releases of Tree of Life, Prometheus and Cloud Atlas, clearly owe a debt to the scope of 2001: A Space Odyssey so maybe now is the ideal time to re-evaluate Kubrick’s life-changing classic.
Without words...
It is difficult to imagine how this film came across to audiences in 1968. Kim Newman writes how Ridley Scott’s Prometheus was a “Wikipedia version of 2001’s content”, and as a fan of the Alien prequel, the statement does ring true – but I don’t think that is such a bad thing in our “Wikipedia-age”. Like Prometheus, it divided critics – Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris provided negative reviews whilst Roger Ebert and Philip French praised the achievement. It is nice to know that a film, which continues to stimulate debate – much like the Top 10 Sight & Sound poll itself – originally held a divided opinion even amongst the critics of the time.
The iconic opening immediately confronts your attitudes to cinema. We watch twenty-minutes of apes attempting to communicate, without a single line-of-script uttered until they find a black monolith. We watch the apes become violent and aggressive. This is the dawn of man and – before the memorable cut between a bone-in-the-air to a floating satellite – either you’re with Kubrick, or you’re not. I remain transfixed. Jonny Greenwood and P.T. Anderson clearly owe a debt to Stanley-K when they opened There Will Be Blood with an extensive opening sequence, a shrieking string-score and barely a whisper of dialogue. Andrew Stanton’s Wall-E has its own homage. The space-station, for five-minutes, is onscreen set to the sound of Johann Strauss II’s ‘The Blue Danube’ Waltz. A waltz that we are half of as we dance with the space-station on the blank canvas of space. The majesty and scope of this sequence alone suddenly transports our minds to fully consider what this film is attempting to tackle. The initial context of apes at the beginning of time was personal enough. This is juxtaposed with a sequence portraying a small-object – like earth itself – small, insignificant and fascinating within the context of space. We see the filmmaker argue in the first 30 minutes whether mankind has a purpose – or whether we, akin to the space-station, are merely floating in the great abyss. There is a beauty and spirituality to what we watch; has a God created such a majestic vision?
The Answer is a Mobile Phone
Interestingly, a mobile phone advert in 2009 referenced the unexplained and unanswered question regarding the black monolith. It seems the single abstract form that begs for answers – according to LG – is merely a mobile phone (Oscar-winning short Logorama is a great example of how brands destroy art and culture for the sake of capitalism and advertising). The black monolith is separated by a millennia, leading to a continued exploration of the galaxy until we realise that though all the technological advancements have been created, we are still searching for answers to no avail.
Prometheus tackles something similar - we can search and crave for all the knowledge in the world; we could know everything. But it is the journey in finding, bit by bit, this knowledge that is the beauty of being human. This constant question-asking is important - the answers not-so-much. A mobile-phone is surely a gross form of abuse to this timeless cinematic milestone.
In terms of a narrative, 2001: A Space Odyssey does not strictly adhere to such a notion. The film is a feast for your eyes; an art piece speaking for itself rather than relying on melodrama to seek interest. The memorable narrative is set-up between 'Dave' and his conflict with "I'm-sorry- Dave..." HAL-9000. Dave realises that the machine created is the machine that will also destroy him. Dave's story ends as he is trapped in infinity, getting older, and coming face to face with the black block. Barry Norman summarises it perfectly describing Kubrick’s intention as an example of “man’s technology [which] is better than man himself”.
Only the Big Questions in Big Space
Since 1968, HAL-9000 has become almost cliché in Science-Fiction, as the untrustworthy computer on-board a space craft becomes a staple in intelligent space-stories. Duncan Jones Moon and Ridley Scott’s Alien are a testament to that. It is this that puts the film on a plinth - or should I say a monolith - as it not only tackles the huge questions of life with the required majesty and awesome breadth needed, it has also become iconic within the Sci-Fi genre inspiring countless imitators. In its narrative; in its set-design; in practically every aspect – it remains a core-influence to filmmakers. Rarely do you watch a film that explores such a personal issue within a context that is so distant to us all. But note, the vast majority of writers agree on one thing – view 2001: A Space Odyssey in a cinema. It is unlikely, even in this day-and-age that an in-house large-screen will suffice.
From listening to Danny Boyle speaking on a commentary-track for Sunshine, he explained that there are two types of science-fiction film: the Star Wars/Star Trek adventure and then an abstract “life-question” film - that inevitably ask questions about faith and spirituality. 2001: A Space Odyssey is firmly in the latter category - and I question if any other film has come close to portraying such an issue with such brutal scope. But to raise the issue, without answering a single question; therein lies the genius of Kubrick.
Large Association of Movie Blogs

Thursday, 15 November 2012

8 ½ (Federico Fellini, 1963)

"I thought my ideas were so clear. I wanted to make an honest film. No lies whatsoever."


Last week I watched Eyes Wide Shut for the first time. I had no idea whether I would enjoy it or not – I knew it was a long film with polar-opposite opinions for and against the film. But I adored it. I loved the topic it explored – lust within a marriage and the animalistic urges men, and women, feel. Who else explores such issues with such bold strokes and clarity. Woody Allen is exceptionally open about sexuality and marriage and, upon reading about 8 ½, it appears Fellini explored the same topics with equal bravado and surety.

8 ½ manages to capture a specific moment in Fellini’s life as he had completed his eighth film and was stuck considering what he would create for his ninth feature. Jean-Michel Frodon summarises the film by stating that it is “about an artist having to make a work, about a man having to deal with women, about a human having to face life and death” – it tackles the bigger issues of life. It tackles it with humour and surrealism. And I thought Eyes Wide Shut was profound. My first viewing of 8 ½ was during an Italian Cinema season at the BFI – the subtitles combined with the white-sets, a stylistic attribute of Fellini, made it difficult to read. But the scenes and composition of each shot were poetic – almost sonnets for each sequence and scene. It is no wonder that Rob Marshall believed Nine would be successful, as he broke down each scene and sequence into a song-number. The adjustment to the title (probably for copywright purposes) from 8 ½ to Nine highlights all that was wrong with the adaptation – ensuring a definitive title; turning the difficult-to-alphabetise title to an easily-placed-under-the-letter-N – all reek of simplifying something that is made to be complex and ambiguous – making something real that should remain dreamlike.

Following Guido - and following Fellini...

Guido (Marcello Mastroianni) is trapped. He is trapped inside his own car – a machine he bought and controlled the direction of. The car suffocates him and consumes him. This car is filling up with smoke and the surrounding crowd looks into the car as it sits, stuck, in a traffic jam. Guido is a film-director of Science-Fiction - a genre that is complete fantasy - and is struggling to get inspiration for his next film. Like Federico Fellini himself, it is his ninth film that he is having difficulty making. He is stuck in limbo between his eighth and ninth film and he desperately seeks inspiration from the world and those around him. He mixes imagination with reality. We move between his set and his dreams; his conversations through to circus and parades; his childhood or, at least, how he imagines his childhood was. He believes he needs to do this – and we know he needs to find inspiration from somewhere, or else even we have difficulty in knowing how the situation will be resolved.

These are themes and ideas which, to some extent, Fellini has looked at before. Mastroianni acting as Fellini, channelling his innermost feelings in La Dolce Vita. Life as a circus akin to La Strada. But there is something more personal at work here – something that every creator understands, and Mar Diestro-Dopido clearly describes in Sight & Sound: “ a faith in finding a kind of purity”.

Inspiration and Self-Reference

A commentary on Art and Creativity is always a tough balance - though something that many other writers and directors have tackled since. In recent years, filmmaker and writer Charlie Kaufman clearly displays an unease and frustration in his craft as depicted in Adaptation (as a writer) and Synecdoche, New York (as writer/director). Only recently, I wrote about Antonioni’s Blow-Up and Coppola's The Conversation as both attempt to deeply analyse through repetition and action, the nature, and purpose, of their respective skills; photography and surveillance respectively. As noted, Woody Allen seems to regularly approach the subject in his own films so it is no wonder that Allen cites filmmakers Fellini and Antonioni as inspirations to his own work.

Akin to The Searchers, maybe it is the context of its release that is 'genius'. For the time, there was nothing so dreamlike and sexy in cinema – the song number ‘Italiano’ in Nine demonstrates the fashionable, iconic style 8 ½ captured. But alongside the stylishness of the film, also made cinema more reflective of the auteur – and therefore the director himself. In the director’s poll, Fellini was the most voted-for director, clearly establishing his films as directly influential on filmmakers today. Mark Romanek, Atom Egoyen and Michael Apted all citing 8 ½ as one of the greatest films of all-time. Can we see Fellini’s influence on One Hour Photo – a film portraying a man relentlessly capturing photos and moments in other people’s lives? Can we see it in the 7up series when we watch an episode capturing ordinary people’s lives every seven years? 8 ½ manages to depict a sense of self-analysis that many films have failed to deliver – turning cinema into a window into the directors, and filmmakers heart.

Timeless Rite of Passage

Often, you read about a director choosing to watch a specific film before they embark on production. The nature, themes and execution of 8 ½ is of such a high calibre that turning to Fellini, time and time again, would not be a bad idea for filmmakers today. Even the dreamlike quality of the film lends itself well to the though-process required when considering concepts for filmmaking - indeed, dreams are more complicated than paintings and music alone. Cinema is the art form which closely resembles dreams - and that, I imagine, is what gives the film such credability.

Frodon additionally dictates that 8 ½ effectively demonstrates “Cinema’s march towards modernity”, and this type of self-referential, directorically-controlled, post-modern type of filmmaking is something that was equally ahead of its time. Only a few years ago, critics would claim Inception was Christopher Nolan's 8 ½. I assume that this is because it was so important to Nolan - and was a film which he had been desperate to make for decades. To think that a filmmakers 8 ½ is a film which is deeply personal and incredibly important speaks louder about the films credability than my short essay.

John Ford was quiet about the meaning to his films; Fellini is brutally honest and open about his. This is for interpretation - but it is open-ended. The interpretation says something about you as a viewer – and crucially, it says something about you as an artist.

*I originally wrote a post on this film way back in April 2010 and developed the review significantly. Those writers may be interested in seeing the development of my writing and use of research which I have since adopted. The original post can be found by clicking here

Thursday, 8 November 2012

The Searchers (John Ford, 1956)

"Some day this country's gonna be a fine, good place to be. Maybe it needs our bones in the ground before that time can come."


Watching the High-Definition version of The Searchers truly is an experience. The vast scale of the landscape between Utah and Arizona, known as Monument Valley, is simply breath-taking when you can see every detail. John Ford manages to capture, in his finest film, the isolation, beauty and threatening nature of this world. Set in 1858, Ford commands our attention from the unforgettable opening shot as Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) rides toward his brother’s house alone on horseback. He is, and remains, a wanderer – and this film reveals this man as a human who is racist and content with taking another man’s life. Though, we should despise him – Ford manages to portray him as heroic. This conflict is set-up within the first few minutes – already separating this film apart from films like Day of the Outlaw and the various ‘psychological’ westerns that appeared at the time.

A Tragic and Dangerous World

The set-up portrays Ethan staying with his brother Aaron (Walter Coy) – but clearly; his love is deeper with his sister-in-law, Martha (Dorothy Jordon). Uncomfortable moments show the Reverend (Ward Bond) witness Martha smell Ethan’s jacket, before handing it over, and lovingly look in his eyes before he plants a tender kiss on her forehead. Ethan then joins the Texas Rangers, taking the place of his Brother, as they check for Indians who’ve apparently stolen cattle – only to reveal that it was a ploy to draw them away from their loved ones. Ethan returns to find his Brother, Nephew (Robert Lyden) and Sister-in-law murdered – and the girls kidnapped.
The film takes an ugly turn as it is clear that Martha has been raped by the Comanches during the attack before she was killed. We are left to truly fear what has happened to the children. This moment is so shocking that it completely changes the mood of the film – this is not a positive film anymore and, as the impetus to move the film on, we are constantly brought back to realising how tragic this situation is. The teenage daughter Lucy (Pippa Scott) has a lover, Brad (Harry Carey Jnr), who joins Ethan in searching for the girls – whilst “half-breed” Martin (Jeffrey Hunter), who was raised by the family, additionally supports (despite Ethan’s racist attitude towards him). As the rangers begin their search, the horrendous moment is turned worse when Ethan returns after a walk within the mountains, that he found Lucy and clearly she had been raped and killed herself. This film is a far call from the white-clothed cowboys of the previous few years – Alan Ladd’s lead-character in Shane wouldn’t last long against these Indians.
A Quiet Man

Many documentaries, when discussing John Ford, often show the awkward interview Peter Bogdanovich had with the man. John Ford was a director alongside Alfred Hitchcock and Fritz Lang who began their craft in the silent era. They managed to progress past the evolution of sound and dominance of colour – and in their twilight years, they managed to create masterpieces such as The Big Heat and Vertigo. It is strange to imagine the work-like attitude to filmmaking a director like John Ford had – the idea of discussing, analysing and deconstructing a film was not something he often demonstrated. His interview with Bogdanovich is a testament to that. As Martin Scorsese says in his documentary A Personal Journey…, most American directors at the time “never claimed to be artists” priding themselves on “holding their cards close to their chest”.
With this in mind, it is fascinating how much depth and quality of thought has gone into The Searchers. So many characteristics and situations that were chosen to hold further meaning than mere ‘entertainment’. Edward Buscombe, a Searchers ‘expert’ if you will, has written many books about the many layers of meaning that reside within the 120 minute run-time. The appearance of the film in this year’s Sight & Sound poll was the first appearance it made since its fifth position in 1992. The assumption is that Western films, as a genre, have grown in popularity due to films like 3:10 to Yuma and Seraphim Falls, and of-course the Westerns from the Coen brothers. It is more likely that John Ford’s “stock having risen higher than ever in the past decade”, according to Kieron Corless, is what has caused a small revival of the film. I would be tempted to note how the quality of films in the past couple of years may have factored into the vote – has anyone been able to see the beauty of Monument Valley to such a standard before now? Did John Ford himself ever view such a high-quality digital version? The answer is no – personally, as a second watch, I was amazed at the quality.

Akin to the many layers in the landscape, the film itself holds deeper meanings that are worth considering. Contextually, Ethan himself is an aging man – stuck in his racist and animalistic ways. Did he simply steal the money he hands to his brother at the beginning? The Searchers was released at a point whereby Westerns were changing dramatically. The multiple revisionist versions of the Western – whereby American-Indians were depicted more sympathetically and Spaghetti Westerns, whereby the landscapes were the deserts and world of Italy, were just around the corner. John Ford and John Wayne were many years away from their hey-day in films such as Stagecoach back in 1939. Does Ethan represent the out-of-date attitudes and approaches to the western genre – almost as if Ethan is the aging version of the heroes in the 40’s films. Now he is corrupted and deeply angry about the world that frowns down on his automatic disgust against Indians – there was a time that this was celebrated and supported. But he has no place in this world – and is almost a villain in his attitudes. But he believes his duty, initially to find - and then to murder - Debbie (Natalie Wood) is righteous and justified. We know it’s not, but there is a conflicted character – and a conflicted attitude as to how you as an audience, want the story to progress.
Edward Buscombe writes further, noting how “slowly we realise that the Comanche chief Scar (Henry Brandon) functions as kind of mirror image of Ethan. In raping Martha before he kills her, Scar has performed a horrific travesty of the act that Ethan secretly dreamed of committing. Ethans urge to kill both Scar and Debbie thus arises from his need to obliterate his own illegitimate desires.”
A fascinating interpretation that is supported by sequences whereby the Indians and Texas Rangers ride their horses in parallel, directly imitating each other almost as a mirror-image. Even the opening and closing shots similarity becomes more than mere symmetry – more reminding us of the many parallels in the story between characters.

That Closing Shot

Wayne holds himself, one arm across his body; one leg slightly bent. Two thirds of the screen is black – only the centre panel reveals the characters walking into the house leaving Ethan behind before he walks away. This is a shot that has been used so much now, it is difficult to even highlight the initial use of it by Ford. It is simply now ‘that’ shot . Up there with the’ Vertigo’ shot, used in Jaws.

Even the progression of the story is innovative – in one sequence we hear about Martin and Ethan’s search through multiple voice-overs as Martin’s lover (Vera Miles) reads a letter. The story, directly impacted on Star Wars, as Luke Skywalker’s family are murdered when he is away. Tatooine is a desert landscape and ‘that shot’ is used, when Luke’s Aunt calls him to the house.

This film represents genre, and the multiple-versions and attitudes towards genre. How a genre adapts and changes over time – how meanings and interpretations can alter in each generation. How characters, actors and directors manage to refine their trade and rather than becoming the same character, they become almost a reflection of the ‘truth’ of characters. I imagine Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven (even Adam Sandler in Funny People) preparing by watching John Wayne in The Searchers. Trying to be honest and depict a sense of the reality of their film-career. This is a personal reflection on what they have achieved - and what their characters truly mean. This is a brutal-film that critic Barry Norman manages to summarise effortlessly by stating how it is “a film of quite riveting power executed by a director who had no peer as a maker of westerns”.  I would even go so-far as to say that it was a film director who had no peer as a maker of genre-filmmaking as I cannot think of anyone else who refined a career so much within only one genre. The Searchers makes it all worthwhile.
Large Association of Movie Blogs

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Skyfall (Sam Mendes, 2012)

"Take the bloody shot!"
The possibility of Skyfall achieving acknowledgement at the Academy Awards is not without merit. An outstanding cast, Oscar-nominated composers and cinematographers with, for the first time ever, an Oscar-winning director, clearly establishes Skyfall as a film which has broken the rules regarding James Bond filmmaking. Despite this, Skyfall additionally manages to respect the series with the usual tropes of 007 by seamlessly advertising tourist hot-spots including Shanghai, Istanbul and – in the year of the 2012 Olympics – London. It includes exceptionally attractive ‘Bond Girls’ including Naomie Harris and Bérénice Marlohe, but it is Judi Dench’s ‘M’ who is the central female character. We witness the re-arrival of Q (Ben Whishaw), offering a clear attempt at re-aligning all the facets which make James Bond so engaging. This film took "the bloody shot" and is a game-changer – and makes no attempt at hiding its influences.

“Storm’s Coming” 
It is interesting that, in a year whereby Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises advertised the term ‘a storm is coming’ as Bruce Wayne harked back to his roots, the James Bond film delves deeper than any other James Bond film since On Her Majesty’s Secret Service in exploring where 007 emerged from – and additionally uses the line “storm’s coming” to precede the final act. The film begins as 007 is shot during a mission in Turkey attempting to retrieve a list of undercover-agents, which has managed to get into the wrong hands. The plot is similar to the McGuffin in Mission: Impossible and the infamous ‘Noc’ list. Unlike DePalma’s thriller, Skyfall continues initially under the assumption that Bond is dead – whilst M is held accountable for the loss of the agent and the missing list. Suffice to say, due to a terrorist-attack on MI5, 007 returns to England. But he is a broken-man and has to re-establish himself as the skilled-spy that he truly is.

Producers Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli have tried to change the Bond series for decades. Licence to Kill changed the formulae as Felix Leiter became a victim to Robert Davi’s ‘Sanchez’ (and his sharks), whilst Bond in true Dirty Harry form, “went rogue” to avenge his best friend’s death. Goldeneye became self-aware as the villain was alternate-agent 006 (Sean Bean), mocking the characteristics of Bond which we love. The World is not Enough saw ‘M’ become a victim as Sophie Marceau’s ‘Elektra King’ double-crossed the whole of MI5 and even Die Another Day pre-dated Daniel Craig as Brosnan’s Bond was tortured by scorpions during the opening sequence. Until Casino Royale all these attempts simply failed under the pressures of the expectations of the Bond series – so Die Another Day jarringly blended the torture at the start with a diamond-laser finale.

In 2006, Martin Campbell and Daniel Craig proved that James Bond can be so much more - and in Skyfall, all these elements come together to create a 007 adventure that truly represents James Bond in the modern era. No more token-gestures at change – Skyfall truly, and literally, destroys the “House that Broccoli-and-Saltzman built", in favour of a series built on firmer foundations. Scott Mendelson writes how these elements are what weaken Skyfall, stating the we are "drudging along recycled territory" whilst the filmmakers themselves offer only mere "periodic pandering" to fans of the series. I would disagree - after 23 films, this is what we have all wanted. It is simply a shame that they have tried (and failed) so regularly since Brosnan was cast to change the formulae without losing what we all love about the series.
Influences Further Afield
What separates Skyfall further from the franchise is the incredible direction of Mendes behind the camera. Rather than merely turning to action-films to inspire him, Mendes turns to films as diverse as Apocalypse Now, The Usual Suspects and Chris Nolan’s The Dark Knight to create mood and depict scenes. Marc Forster failed to evoke the action depicted in The Bourne Trilogy in Quantum of Solace, but it seems that Mendes knew that this direction was the wrong tone for James Bond. Whilst Jason Bourne was rough, off-the-radar and uncontrollable – James Bond can be clean cut, exemplifies extreme class and style and his attitude borders on blatant arrogance. His snarky quips representing his personal, supreme confidence in his skill. Jason Bourne would be unlikely to discuss his sexual-experiences with an enemy when tied to a chair – as James Bond does with the brilliant villain Silva (Javiar Bardem). It is this use of character that not-only separates James Bond from the Jack Bauers and Ethan Hunts of the world, but it also separates Skyfall from all of its predecessors.
Indeed, supporting cast members Judi Dench and Naomie Harris manage to provide a scope to the film that the lone-wolf in Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace lacked. Harris’ ‘Eve’ is much more than a token ‘Bond-girl’, whilst M manages to garner more screen-time than any other actor other than Bond himself. The fact that Oscar-winner Judi Dench holds the role assures you of the quality of her depiction of ‘M’ in her seventh-outing as 007’s superior. In this film particularly, her role is one to be commended and celebrated. Indeed, she is as conflicted about the morality of her role in MI5, leading men into battle, as James Bond is about his espionage work on the front-line. Therefore, it is simply poetic that Silva is a character (not unlike Alec Trevelyan in GoldenEye and Scaramanga in TheMan with the Golden Gun) who is physically and mentally 007’s reflected-rival, adding a further dimension to the Mother-Child relationship between Bond and M.
The Destruction of the Past
As a fan of the series, the final-act is what is noticeably different to previous outings. Even Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace had an almost-cliché finale as huge, exotic locations – Venice and the Atacama Desert in Chile respectively – set the scene for an explosive ending that would-not be out of place in any other Connery or Moore adventure. Skyfall sets the scene in the highlands of Scotland. The misty moors and dusty chandeliers are hardly the expensive ‘quality’ we are used to seeing in the series. But it is Roger Deakins that turns the location into a ghost-town that accurately represents the story which Purvis, Wade and Logan are telling. Again, this is not your usual James Bond film and the end of this film is like no-other. Sam Mendes has peeled back the layers of the character to reveal his history and his past – something that many may see as sacrilege. But Deakins cinematography is simply glorious; capturing the mood and emotion attached to the moment. After Vesper (Eva Green) ‘stripped away his armour’ in Casino Royale - only for him to bury it deep within his soul after her betrayal; Skyfall destroys every other human characteristic James Bond had, and the final act represents how much has been taken away to make 007 a lethal man with a licence to kill.
Fans of the series will leave the film with a similar crooked smile on their face. We will think to ourselves “Now he is James Bond!” the same thing we thought when the sniper-rifle hit Mr White at the end of Casino Royale. In that respect, a niggle of frustration may creep through as it has almost been three films now of ‘understanding’ James Bond. Can’t we simply have a James Bond adventure? Can’t we see a story contained unto a single film without a self-referential collective ‘aah’ when he says the same “You must be joking” line we have heard too many times in the series? Maybe. In fairness, this is what Quantum of Solace should’ve been. This is what the 20th film, Die Another Day, dreamt it could’ve been. But it is 50 years since Dr No, and this film is a way that truly celebrates that success. No other franchise has such longevity and, therefore, captures 50 years of stylistic changes and cultural shifts over the period of its release. This film will remain a special film for many reasons – the use of James Bond’s home town, London; the political and personal relevance to the nature of terrorism in the 21st century; the dramatic finale. It is only fitting that the film ends where it all began, almost daring younger and new-fans of the series to pick up the box set and go back to the start. Because behind all the Oscar-nominees and Oscar-winners; behind the cast and crew; behind the two producers who have managed to maintain the series since GoldenEye are fans of the series – like we are. And we only want what is best for Bond – and this could be the very best of the entire series.
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